Another Silken Thread
—————————unch on Wednesday with two Chinese visitors, one of them a senior editor at a mainland-Chinese newspaper. I shall call this gentleman Wu Ming to avoid the possibility, slight if what he said is true (as I believe it is), that this report might get him into trouble. Before moving up to the editorial page, Wu Ming was the books editor of the newspaper, which has a heavily intellectual readership. My main interest in talking to him was therefore to ascertain the current state of Chinese literature. The answer was: dismal. "Nobody has time for literature any more. People are too busy trying to make money. The only books that really sell in China are textbooks, especially anything to do with computers." Was anybody publishing Chinese translations of Western poetry? I asked, having just finished reviewing four English translations of Chinese poems. No, he didn't know of any such work going on. Nobody could make money doing such a thing. Having thus disposed of my principal inquiry, and the food not yet arrived, we rambled off into a general discussion of social, cultural, and political topics. In no time at all, they were both venting. The Communists! The damn stinking Communists! They had destroyed the moral fabric of the country! They lied to the people about their own history! They were keeping the nation in a state of political backwardness! Making us look stupid in front of the whole world! The lousy damn ta-ma-de Communists! ("Ta-ma-de" is the general intensive used when cursing in Chinese, unprintable in translation. "Ma," of course, means "mother.”) Though not entirely out of touch with mainland affairs, I was surprised to hear this stuff coming so quickly, and so frankly, from two people I had never met before. I asked Wu Ming: "How can you hold down a very responsible position on a major newspaper, with opinions like yours?" Wu Ming laughed. "If they fire me, who will they hire? Everybody else thinks just the same as I do! The Communists know that, but they don't care. They don't care! Just so long as we don't publish anything against them, they don't care what we think, or even what we say." He went on to explain that since "6-4" — i.e. the crushing of the student movement on June 4th 1989 — there had been a sea change in the mentality of China's ruling party. Prior to 6-4 they had felt it necessary to maintain a mask of propriety and service to the people. There had been corruption and lying, of course, but the Communists were embarrassed by it and took pains to hide it from the people. After 6-4, however, the mask had been dropped. "They said to themselves: 'Hey, we murdered our own people in our own streets — and got away with it!' Now they feel they can do anything. They feel untouchable, that they can get away with anything. Now they feel no shame. They are perfectly brazen, perfectly shameless. The corruption is all in the open, they don't care who sees it. The people all hate them- you hear people complaining everywhere you go. The Communists don't care. The only thing they care about is organized opposition. That they will not allow. If they see that, they crush it right away. But they don't care what anybody thinks or says." This agrees with what I have heard from others. An American-Chinese friend just went back to Shanghai after 15 years. "Everybody complains all the time," he reported on his return to the States. "Complete strangers-taxi drivers, waiters in restaurants-they just want to tell you how much they hate the government. Amazing." It is an interesting development in the evolution of modern Chinese despotism. Under the classic totalitarian model, the rulers demand not just the outward gestures of obedience, but an inner submission, too. Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four was not a true citizen of Oceania until he loved Big Brother. Menachem Begin, in his report of his own interrogation by the NKVD in 1940, says that even at that late date his interrogators seemed to feel genuine regret that he could not see things their way. One of the earliest exposés of life in Mao's China was Tung Chi-ping's The Thought Revolution. That was what Mao sought — a revolution in the way people thought. Well, that model has been scrapped. In Communist China the rulers no longer give a flying faloosa what you think, nor even what you say. There is now, effectively, freedom of speech in China-what Karl Wittfogel called "a beggar's democracy," in which you can say what you like so long as you do not attempt to publish it or organize around it. All the rulers require is that you do not organize against them. That is the new social contract in China. Busy yourself with trying to make a living, and keep your nose out of public affairs. Leave us to pile up our Swiss bank accounts, and don't try to interfere. That way, we shall do you no harm. China has returned to the equilibrium point of classical despotism, the one summed up by the Romans in the phrase oderint dum metuant: "Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.” The leaders exult quietly-indeed, if Wu Ming is right, not so quietly-to themselves: "We have done what nobody thought we could get away with; and we got away with it!" Which reminds me of some other leaders in another country. So the world speeds on, towards ever greater wealth, ever freer movement, ever accumulating knowledge. And at the heart of this great plump glowing rosy apple of global prosperity is a worm.